One morning in late January, after a ride on the Paris métro to its terminus in the eastern suburb of Montreuil and a cold 10-minute walk through an industrial zone, I arrive at a nondescript, unheated warehouse. Inside, laid out on the floor of the large, open space, is a 33-meter-long white canvas, composed of 11 strips stapled together. The canvas is still mostly blank, with unfinished spheres in shades of blue, white, and yellow. Music plays softly in the background as three painters perform the immense task of painting what will portray a vast skyscape. These unromantic working-class environs are an unlikely place to find what might be one of the more romantic possibilities in art: a painting for the ceiling of the Louvre.
As part of its mission to add contemporary artists’ work to its vast collection of paintings and crafts dating back to antiquity, the Louvre asked the American artist Cy Twombly to paint the ceiling of one of its galleries, the Salle des Bronzes. Twombly agreed, and for the first time since Georges Braque in 1953, a living artist’s work will adorn a ceiling of the iconic museum. There are other foreigners adding to the Louvre’s décor as well, most recently German artist Anselm Kiefer; sculptures and a painting of his were permanently installed in a stairwell on the northeast corner two years ago. Braque’s contribution—in the Salle Henri II, the room adjoining the Salle des Bronzes, as it happens—incorporates three separate paintings of birds on a dark blue sky into an existing Renaissance-era ceiling that covers the rest of the surface area.
Twombly’s task is on a grander scale, since it will encompass the entire length and width of the ceiling’s surface. The opportunity is striking: not just to make a mark on the Louvre in such a major way, but to be the first American to receive this kind of honor. Marie-Laure Bernadac, the Louvre’s contemporary art curator, says that Twombly was chosen by the museum’s Living Art committee, comprised of experts in the field— curators, a culture ministry representative, the director of a museum of modern art, and others from beyond France. “We wanted an internationally known painter,” Bernadac explains, “a major artist who ideally had experience in decorative arts of monuments.” The committee soon agreed on Twombly, who had in 1989 conceived a curtain for the Bastille Opéra in Paris. He visited the Louvre in 2006 to see the hall, and months later, after his return home to Lexington, Virginia, where he lives part of each year, sent sketches of his design, which the committee approved.
Not long after, he mentioned the project to a friend in Lexington who is herself a painter and an art professor, Barbara Crawford. He asked her if she would help him mix colors and paint the maquette to match a model that he had created for the ceiling. While they were working on the maquette, the now 80-year-old Twombly asked, in an offhand way, whether Crawford, 62, who teaches both art history and studio art at Southern Virginia University, near Lexington, if she’d be interested in assisting him at the Louvre on his ceiling project. “I said yes and then didn’t give it much thought,” Crawford tells me, as we patter in our socks across the work-in-progress canvas at the Montreuil workspace. In the end it was decided that she would not just help but be Twombly’s eyes, ears, and hands for the actual painting of the canvas, and she arranged to be away from her classes for several weeks in January. This is how serendipity works: a local Virginia university professor-artist casually agrees to assist a world-renowned painter and ends up being the boots—or rather socks—on the ground, overseeing and actually doing many of the brushstrokes of what will be a new ceiling in the world’s most famous repository of art.
Crawford is aware of her great fortune, but she isn’t letting it get in the way of her task. Or rather, the impact of it is prevented by the task itself. “It’s staggering, but the practical issues balance it out. I mean, I have to think about things like what I should be wearing to stay warm. Questions are always popping up: Should I paint it this way? Is his color more like that? These things overshadow the magnitude. But I’ll be on the métro on my way back to the hotel thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” she exclaims with an excited laugh. “I want to stand up and tell everybody, ‘I’m doing something for France!’ I feel this great sense of contribution.”
Before the work commenced, studies and evaluations were conducted to judge the most effective materials and process to realize Twombly’s vision for the ceiling. Originally there were plans for panels made of fiberglass. The final decision was to have Twombly’s rendering painted in oil on strips of connected canvas, which would in turn be glued to the ceiling in a process known as marouflage—not unlike a grand version of wallpaper, only overhead, and in a place fit for kings. It’s a process that was used quite commonly in Europe from the 16th to the 19th centuries, gradually falling out of practice in recent years.
The plastic-protected maquette that had been painted back in Virginia is ever-present in the Montreuil workspace, lying somewhere on the canvas, constantly consulted during the painting process. Working alongside Crawford are Frenchmen Jean de Seynes and Laurent Blaise, artists in their own right who have taken part in restoration projects at the Louvre and other European landmarks. Their work follows that of a team that specializes in Louvre canvas work and has provided custom-made, 11-meter-long canvas strips to accommodate the specific measurements of the Salle des Bronzes ceiling. The specialists still visit every few days to see how their work is holding up. Blaise says that having multiple strips for such a large piece involves a bit of computation due to questions about how it will all line up together at the end.
“Humidity is used for the attaching of the canvas, but it also causes variations in the dimensions,” Blaise explains, his curls of dark hair hanging forward as he bends down to show the overlapped seams in the stapled canvas. “There is a certain amount of uncertainty, given the size, of maybe one or two centimeters.” He says that ultimately the sheer length of the work should make the fitting less urgent than it would be for a smaller tableau. But as the marouflage process slowly takes place, there is the risk that the strips will not be perfectly straight as they are attached. “So we have allowed for one to one and one-half centimeters of maneuverability between each of the canvas strips, which we’ve taken into account in our calculations,” Blaise says. Once the canvas is in place on the ceiling, the restorers will spend several weeks high up in the air, touching up the seams and rendering them invisible.
Crawford, looking at the blue sky on the maquette, then at the blue paint for the canvas, turns and says, “You know, when I first mixed it, I didn’t know I’d have to actually reproduce it. I thought there would be”—and here she lowers her voice as if sharing a confidence—“some little piece of electronic equipment that would scan it automatically. But no, it’s visual. First I do it in a small amount, and then we have to enlarge it, and every time you exponentially enlarge it, with the same proportions, it doesn’t always work, because one color has a stronger presence or loses its presence in larger quantities. So every time we go larger, we need to adjust the proportions.”
Twombly visited the Louvre a few months ago, and the museum produced several big sample panels, which were close to the intended color, but not exactly right. During Crawford’s time here, she and the others have gone over to the Salle des Bronzes with their own work samples and have seen that the colors that look one way in the Montreuil workspace’s bright natural light appear different in the more somber locale of the Louvre. This has led them to make subtle color adjustments for the hall’s lighting to match the maquette, which was painted in acrylics and reflects light differently than oils do. I watch Blaise making minute changes to the blue with a large plastic syringe that is normally used by medical professionals to inject milk into the stomachs of nonfeeding newborns. He, Crawford, and de Seynes joke that the unique, precise blue for this particular sky, which they’ve spent weeks fine-tuning, should be trademarked and given the name Twomblu.
The list of the project’s base colors is taped to the wall—evocative names like cobalt, yellow ochre, ultramarine, cadmium yellow hue, lemon yellow, bone black, cadmium orange, raw umber among them. The crew is keeping precise records of the proportions, regularly logging in the details for anyone doing touch-ups years from now. “The idea is to give the ceiling the same spirit as the maquette,” says de Seynes in French. “If we painted directly onto the ceiling, rather than painting the canvas then affixing it to the ceiling, it could crack apart and have other problems. Doing it in this manner, it’s changeable.”
“In other words,” adds Blaise, “it can be removed if necessary,” implying that repairs can be conducted easily. As if on cue, the rest of us realize the full implication for a project that is supposed to last into perpetuity. “Well, I hope not,” says Jean to a round of laughter.
After exploring the canvas at ground level, I climb a metal scaffold near the entrance for a view with greater scope. From here, the scale of the canvas is even more impressive. Some spheres are monochromatic discs, some mythical moons, and still others are earthlike planets with swirls of different shades of blue and what appear to be hints of landmasses. Some disappear off the edges of the canvas, giving a sense of the infinity of space, as if the skyscape continues on beyond what can be contained by the ceiling, so that what we see is merely a fraction of the vastness.
The three painters work well together, arriving each day at 9 a.m. and working until 12:30 before repairing to one of the local restaurants. Montreuil has a growing population of Parisian artists taking advantage of the suburb’s connection to the Paris métro system and of large work spaces not available in the city center. “What’s great is that we work here and talk about color and then go to a café to have something hot and talk about all these great Renaissance painters,” says Crawford. “It’s the old world and the new world together.” They then work the rest of each afternoon until they lose the natural light. Twombly typically calls briefly at 5 p.m. to check in and hear how the work is progressing.
The artist himself is part of that pantheon of Americans in all the arts (novelist Paul Auster, filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and Woody Allen) who find more recognition and appreciation overseas than at home. During the last half century, Twombly’s abstract style has blurred the lines separating drawing, painting, and graffiti. He has found success within the art world in the United States, with exhibits in museums around the country and even a dedicated Cy Twombly Gallery as part of the Menil Collection in Houston, but in works such as those in the series The Four Seasons and Blooming: A Scattering of Blossoms and Other Things, his acclaim in recent years has been more pronounced in Europe. Twombly has spent most of his life in Italy, and in addition to attention in France (his most recent show here receiving whimsical international headlines in 2007 after a woman kissed one of his canvases in Avignon, leaving a permanent lipstick mark and lawsuits in her wake), a large number of his works are displayed at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich; London’s Tate Modern had a retrospective last year.
From the time Twombly arrived on the art scene in the early 1950s, his work has explored cultures of the past and notions of calligraphy. He was part of the flourishing postwar abstract movement that included Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Willem de Kooning, artists who used not just the written word but cultural iconography in their work. Twombly has preferred to let his painting speak for itself, but in an interview nearly a decade ago with the late British art critic David Sylvester, he described his own process, declaring, “Each line is now the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate—it is the sensation of its own realization.”
“The French have been great to Cy,” says Crawford, recounting how reticent the Louvre was to even lend her the maquette until they learned that it was her handiwork and not Twombly’s own brushstrokes. Crawford sees her work on the maquette and now the larger canvas itself as being in keeping with an old artistic tradition. “I’m reminded of the Renaissance and all the great artists and their apprentices. How the artists instructed them to paint this tree or that house. It wasn’t unusual at the time for the artist to plan a project, sketch something, and hand it to an apprentice and say, ‘execute it.’ This is exactly what we are doing here.”
Several days after my visit to Montreuil, I made my way through the Louvre’s crowds to see the future site of Twombly’s work. The Salle des Bronzes is home to a collection of bronze figurines, battle armor, and jewelry from Greece and elsewhere in the region in the late centuries B.C. and early centuries C.E. Typical objects are a decorative armrest for a chariot with the description, “Lion Seizing an Onyx, 2nd–3rd century B.C.,” and “Corinthian-type helmet, 7th century B.C.” Originally constructed between 1551 and 1553, when the Louvre was still the royal residence, this hall represents some very prime real estate within the museum’s already elite digs: not only does the hall act as a passageway from one wing of the Louvre to another, it is part of the north-south section between the main entrance to the west, and the Cour Carrée to the east. The beautiful view out its western windows is of the iconic I. M. Pei pyramid—perhaps the ultimate expression of the museum’s effort to fuse the old and the new—as well as the Tuileries Garden, the Grand Palais, and rising up from the end of the Champs-Elysées like punctuation on the horizon, the Arc de Triomphe.
Sometime in the spring, once the three weeks of painting in Montreuil is complete (the painters estimate it will take 50 liters of paint), the canvas will be rolled up onto the 11 tall cylinders waiting in a corner and taken to the Louvre. The museum displays will be moved out, and the marouflage process will begin. A machine will unroll the canvas centimeter by centimeter and adhere it to the ceiling while applying a constant amount of pressure. During this period and the touching-up of the attached canvas, an enclosed passageway will allow visitors to move from one wing to another. This setup should last into early 2010, with the official unveiling for the public taking place that April, if all remains on schedule.
I walk around the room, gazing up at the high ceiling. Unlike the ornate and decorative ceilings of other halls, this one is long, white, and flat, a blank sky to the vanilla-colored stone walls, swirled marble columns, and floor. The skyscape will significantly alter the room, changing the very lighting itself; the dominant blue will not reflect the room’s natural light like the white ceiling does now, but will cast its own hue downward. Thematically, the design is well chosen; in addition to the sky and the three dozen or so spheres and discs, white rectangles will feature the names of seven Greek artists of the era that the room celebrates, including Myron and Polycleitus. Unlike famous frescoed ceilings such as that of the Sistine Chapel or even those elsewhere in the Louvre, Twombly’s ceiling is simple, nearly austere. It’s both obvious (a sky above) and subtle (the profoundly beautiful shade of blue, the different spheres, some suggesting celestial bodies, others round warrior shields).
Questions that remain unanswered have to do with how Twombly came to conceive the ceiling the way he did—the choices he made when he first set foot in the Salle des Bronzes, his thoughts on the flight home and during his time alone sketching. Did it all come to him in one bolt? Did he pass through a series of wholly different, discarded ideas before arriving at his choice? Surely his own interest in classical mythology guided him. Rare is the occasion when Twombly speaks to the press these days, so the answer to these questions will remain a mystery. Crawford provides her own grace note: “If you know Cy’s work, you would look at this work and say to yourself, ‘This isn’t very Twombly.’ But it’s not about him; he didn’t make a design that said, ‘I’m Cy Twombly, look at me, I’m on the ceiling of the Louvre.’ No, he just designed something that was best for the room, and it fits.”
That would indeed be the measure of a noble artist. By spring of next year, he’ll have 33 meters of immortality in one of the world’s most prized edifices, and rather than assert himself, Cy Twombly plays the journeyman and lets the context be the prize.